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1As I write this my nation is gearing up for their first match of the World Cup. I’m reliably informed that it’s kind of a big deal.

The ‘football fever’ that grips Britain during this time reminded me of Stephen Bassett’s 1989 paper1 on the development of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In what would become a popular and well referenced idea, Bassett likened the situation of competing kingdoms to a football league. Before considering this in any detail, let’s have a quick recap of early England:

  • Roman Britain collapsed around AD 410 (but had been declining for a little while)
  • Germanic migrants set up shop in the 5th century, although many were already living there as Roman soldiers (e.g. foederatiand laeti)
  • Several Germanic kingdoms had emerged by the tail end of the 5th century, and were certainly established by the end of the 6th century
  • These kingdoms competed for supremacy in the 7th and 8th centuries in a time sometimes known as the ‘Heptarchy’ (even thought there were more than seven kingdoms)
  • Although raiding since the very end of the 8th century, the Vikings began settling northern and eastern England during the mid-9th century and set up the Danelaw
  • Alfred the Great resisted Danish expansion and, by the end of the 9th century, England was effectively divided into a ‘Danish’ bit and an ‘English’ bit
  • This situation kind of continued until AD 1066 when the Normans conquered all of England and, eventually, Wales

So if we negate the later bit – when the pesky Vikings get involved – early England was a hot pot of different, competing kingdoms. These kingdoms emerged a century or so after the initial Anglo-Saxon settlements and fought against each other for territory and influence. Historical sources document a large number of battles between these kingdoms. We also know that religious conversion and elite marriage pacts were used to consolidate control.

2When we look at how these various kingdoms fared over time, it does indeed begin to look a little bit like a football league. Although massively oversimplified, it is possible to select a few ‘winning teams’ from each century using the archaeological and historical evidence:

  • Kent was one of the earliest established kingdoms and had important Frankish contacts during the 6th century
  • Wessex gained large amounts of territory in the 7th century, around about the same time as Northumbria underwent its ‘Golden Age’ of learning and art
  • Mercia was by far the largest kingdom during the 8th century
  • Wessex effectively unified England in the 9th century and by the end of his reign Alfred the Great was styling himself of ‘King of the Anglo-Saxons’

So maybe Bassett’s analogy wasn’t such a bad idea. It is perhaps a strange way of looking at the period, but it certainly does help to contextualise the situation. Is considering the period in this way a useful and productive way to further our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon past? No, not really. It’s a gross oversimplification and the game of football is in no way similar to the game of thrones (see what I did there?).

But:

Is it a useful way of making the past relevant to the present? Yes.

And does it make the past more accessible and, dare I say it, interesting? Yes.

In that case, why the hell not use it as an analogy? Now where did I leave my Wessex FC kit…

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1 Bassett, S. 1989. ‘In search of the origins of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms’. In S. Bassett (ed.). The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. Leicester. pp.3-27.

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